A Death Sentence for Apostasy

ByArne H. Fjeldstad

September 22, 2011


OVER THE LAST TWO YEARS, international mainstream media and human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Service for Human Rights, and International Federation for Human Rights have given limited – if any – attention to the troubling case of an imprisoned 34-year-old Iranian pastor from Rasht.

For the past ten years Youcef Nadarkhani (pictured) has been a pastor in a network of Christian house churches with around 400 members. After protesting about the religious education at the local school, the secret police brought him before the political tribunal in Rasht, Iran, on October 12, 2009. At the time of his arrest, he was charged with protesting, and has been in prison in Lakan (which is seven miles south of Rasht) ever since. Later the charges were changed to apostasy and evangelism of Muslims.

His wife Fatemah Pasindedih, mother of their two sons Daniel (9) and Yoel (7), was also put on trial without an attorney in 2010, and sentenced to life in prison. An attorney was later hired and the sentence appealed, which resulted in her release.

Backgrounder: Other Religious Prisoners in Iran. 

Nadarkhani (also spelled Naderkhani in some reports) had previously been imprisoned for two weeks back in December of 2006, on charges of apostasy and evangelism. A year ago on September 22, 2010, Iran’s 11th Circuit Criminal Court of Appeals for the Gilan Province upheld Nadarkhani’s conviction for apostasy and the sentence of death. The judgment said Nadarkhani was born to Muslim parents but converted to Christianity when he was age 19, and it claimed that “during interrogations Nadarkhani made a written confession admitting he left Islam for Christianity.”

“I am not an apostate…Prior to 19 years old I did not accept any religion,” Nadarkhani said at trial, alleging that his interrogators pressured him into making the statement. Nadarkhani said he was coaxed by an interrogator into thinking “that a person who is born to Muslim parents, and does not accept a religion other than Islam before reaching the religious maturity age (15 for males), is automatically a Muslim.”

The Iranian Supreme Court upheld the death sentence on June 27, 2011, and it is said the reasons being religious rulings (fatwas). However, the high court is asking the local court in Gilan to re-examine the case to determine if he was truly a Muslim, and, if so, he must recant. If he does not, he will be executed. To help him recant his faith he has twice been taken to the gallows and shown the rope that he would hang from, according to a source in the region.

The decision in the Nadarkhani case, which has been variously described as “flawed”, “contradictory” and “extra-judicial”, may indicate that the judges were under political pressure not to release Pastor Nadarkhani. There are also unconfirmed reports of a split decision, with one of the judges allegedly stating that the ruling made little sense.

A hearing is scheduled for 25 September, and if the court finds that he was a practicing Muslim, Pastor Nadarkhani’s death sentence will stand unless he agrees to renounce Christianity.

Two articles in the constitution grant Christians “the right to freely worship and form religious societies” and another “obligates the Iranian government to uphold the equality and human rights of Christians.”

The Iranian lawyer Hossein Jadidi, in an interview with The Media Project, denies that it is a common pattern to keep Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) in prison due to procedural issues.

“The usual charge concerns with the safety of the country. The evidence for the Christians threatening the country is very slim, but the initial charge is not ‘procedural’ as such. Evangelical Christians in the house churches are seen in the minds of the establishment as a part of a soft cultural war being waged against Iran by the West. I was talking to one of those arrested in January and the issue of religion didn’t come up at all. In fact the interrogators let him know they respected his faith. The issue all the time was whether he was a part of a network that was threatening the security of the country,” says Jadidi.

TMP: “There have been accusations of torture?”

“There is a lot of mental and verbal torture, but very little physical torture. It is very limited – to slapping, beatings.”

Jadidi is currently living in exile with his wife and two children after they had to get out of the country during the large scale arrests in February 2011. Jadidi has been a lawyer and legal counselor for the last 12 years, mainly in human rights and women’s rights. After he became a Christian in 2006 he has also worked as a lawyer for Christians.

TMP: “How many other prisoners are there?”

“Perhaps four or five…BUT there are between a hundred to a hundred and fifty people whose files are still open, who can be called back to court at any time. These are the ones who have been arrested and then freed on bail.”

TMP: “Looking ahead for Youcef Nadarkhani – what are his chances?”

“Not that good. He is still in prison and in a month’s time he has to go to court to face the same charges, i.e. apostasy. I think Youcef was given this breathing space for the foreign media to forget about him, and maybe for him to recant, and now they will impose the same sentence. I don’t think they can free him as that then undermines all that the government is saying. However, as with Adbul Rahman in Afghanistan, the authorities are probably trying to work out a way they can say he is mad and get rid of him,” says Hossein Jadidi.

Dr. Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a TMP board member, emphasizes that a new wave of persecution against Christians started during the Christmas holiday late 2010.

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